How MPA Alumni Are Making an Impact
“Making a difference.” “Making the world a better place.” Use these phrases enough and they start sounding stale. But backed by real results, the work of MPA alumni is proving the skills developed within the walls of the Marriott School can make meaningful—and real—change.
United in their desire to improve world conditions, alumni bring their education into real-world situations. These grads develop lifelong skills that benefit their careers and empower them to influence the world around them.
These three alumni recently shared their experiences and the tools that helped them enact real change in their organizations—and beyond.
Given the assignment to research the effectiveness of in- vs. out-of-house trash and recycling collection, Jaysen Christensen, a 2002 grad then doing his MPA internship, researched and prepared models to present to the city council.
“By the end of the summer, I was confident that I had a slam-dunk recommendation,” Christensen says. “I was wrong. Within the first two minutes of my presentation to the city council, I was faced with emotionally charged opposition that I was not prepared for. I realized after my presentation that I should have engaged this city councilman and other stakeholders early in the process.”
Back at school, Christensen enrolled in a management philosophies class, where he learned the management style that best suited his personality was that of a facilitator manager. This particular role works with stakeholders to identify common objectives and build consensus—the opposite, he realized, of what he had done during his internship.
That skill now serves Christensen well. In his position as city administrator for Glendale, Missouri, he facilitated the physical renovation of the city’s fire department, an aging facility in need of upgrades on a small budget. Opinions about what to do—from building a new fire station to partnering with neighboring cities for shared services— varied among employees, elected officials, neighboring cities, citizens, and even the local media.
After two years of research and meetings, voters overwhelmingly approved the decision to build a new fire station and remodel the police station in city hall.
“Despite the differing opinions and obstacles that typically challenge a public process like this, it was widely recognized that ‘buy-in’ among all of the groups, which was achieved through a collaborative and facilitative approach, was key to the success,” Christensen says.
Follow the Leader
Many people may groan at group work, but team leadership is a crucial skill Jolene Jones, a 2014 EMPA grad and Marriott School adjunct professor, learned through hands-on opportunities to lead various teams and student groups while in school.
“As a team leader I had to organize the team’s goals, set and keep deadlines, and most importantly, allow team members to express their individual strengths while, at the same time, balancing individuality with the project’s ultimate success,” Jones says. “I learned via the MPA program that team leadership wasn’t about me but rather was about the team—how to encourage them, keep them on deadlines, and challenge them to do the best they could do for the project.”
Now a member of the Primary Children’s Hospital Corporate and Community Development Board, Jones works closely with business owners and community leaders to raise awareness and funds for the programs at Primary Children’s Hospital, managing teams—each with different personalities and traditions— through fundraising campaigns and community events.
“Without the training I received in the MPA program, I would not have been nearly as successful nor as confident in my ability to lead such important and diverse teams,” Jones says. “The MPA program gave me the skill set I needed to be an influential member of this board. Having the experience of being a team leader gave me significant real-world experience in team leadership. As an MPA graduate, my way of serving is to offer my knowledge base and experience to organizations such as Primary Children’s Hospital in the hope that the better they function, the more service and opportunity they can render to the community at large.”
No ‘I’ in ‘Team’
A few words can make a huge difference, as Jackie Saumweber, a 2014 grad and senior manager of food sustainability for Walmart, learned through experience.
In an effort to reduce food waste and provide clearer information to customers, Saumweber helped convert date label terminology to read “Best If Used By” on private brand food items sold at Walmart and Sam’s Club. The phrasing was found to best convey that the date on a food package refers to quality and freshness—not safety. Surveys revealed a positive response from customers, but they weren’t the only winners: with this small wording change on labels, Saumweber and her team were able to help eliminate an estimated 660 million pounds of food waste and 900,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
How did Saumweber do it? Not alone, she says.
“One of the most exciting parts of the project was working with a very diverse group of key players and pulling together the right people to get the work done,” she says. “A lot of different voices had to be part of the conversation, including store operators, food donation programs, and packaging experts. That level of collaboration is complicated, time-consuming, and sometimes messy, but the scale and significance of the impact on both our customers and the environment was beyond anything we could have done if we’d gone at it alone.”
Saumweber learned a number of important skills in the MPA program but argues that this type of cross-functional collaboration was the most critical to her success.
“The MPA program is very much team-based,” she says, “and we all learned how to identify and leverage our own strengths and those of others, as well as how to find shared value for everyone at the table.”
Saumweber had originally interned for the Walmart Foundation while midway through the MPA program, an experience she says played a part in her decision to work for Walmart.
“I learned and saw firsthand that I could still work on meaningful social issues in a private sector environment,” she says.